2019 has been an incredible year for so much in the mediums that I love. Music, film, and quite assuredly what you’re reading this for: video games. The medium of escapism has never felt more needed as wildfires ravage California and Australia, corporate greed and corruption run rampant, and political turmoil at every level of governing seems to overwhelm us. In 2016, I boldly predicted that the next four years would have some of the best art we’ve ever seen. That when the world seems at its worst we get the things that will be the source of inspiration to continue “fighting the good fight” of human existence. I’ve had a good track record, and every new year we see a release schedule that just ups the game on the previous years. Next year we will have a remake of Final Fantasy VII, a sequel to The Last of Us, a look into a dark future in Cyberpunk 2077, and a new entry into Animal Crossing. Quite impressive.
2019 was a year of big change for me on several personal levels. I came out publicly as Abrosexual, I graduated from university, and I am now paying back the crippling debt of my student loans. I’m navigating new complexities in my relationships that comes both with being 30, and being out. It’s had some tremendous highs and gut-wrenching lows. But games seem to have been an incredible medium to decompress from the world and find my inner balance before returning to the fray, as it were. Here are my top ten games of the year, but first, some honorable mentions.
Life is Strange 2
There is an incredible story at play with the sequel to my favorite game of 2015. I’ve always been a sucker for games about brothers. Despite most people dismissing or being disappointed with Infamous Second Son, I was immediately drawn to Delsin and his story as the younger brother, and the inherent inferiority that comes with the role: being a screw up or a disappointment. Just being antithetical to the older sibling, there is the moment when Reggie makes a decision that truly ruined me to tears. The juxtaposition in Life is Strange 2 is an intriguing exercise for me. To act like the older brother to a younger brother I never had. To do what I can to help my younger brother and I survive after a horrible misunderstanding when a bottle of fake blood and a fistfight leads to the worst possible outcome.
The story it’s telling, from the early moments are one of family, and what that really means. I reached somewhere in episode two before stopping. While the story is one I have no doubt is worth telling, I struggled to come back to it, and in doing so, left it here on the honorary mentions. It won’t be surprising to see this on other Game of the Year lists.
Final Fantasy XIV Shadowbringers / Destiny 2 Shadowkeep
2019 was an incredible time for games as a service, including those in the MMO space. Destiny 2 continues to chip away at crafting Bungie’s own future in ways that continue to astound me. I’m still playing through the Shadowbringers campaign, but from everything I’ve played I’ve enjoyed. But let’s face it, if I let expansions and ongoing games into my Top 10, how could anyone compete?
There is something very cool about Control. It’s a good ass video game, and the X-Files feelings it gives off are phenomenal. I wish it had grabbed me more than it did, and like it likely will when I get around to finishing it. It has some of the best environments I’ve ever seen in a video game. A wonderful warping of a generic grey concrete municipal government building into a labyrinth of a macabre mystery that feels equal parts pulp and urban sci-fi.
This game is just so weird and so cool. I wish my computer wasn’t suffering from a slow down after my move. The game is incredibly daring in its approach to role-playing, as the most intriguing characters you meet in the game are the shattered remnants of your own psyche. Where other games might grey out and prevent you from choosing an option in the dialogue, Disco Elysium takes greater steps, letting you do one of my favorite things a video game lets you do: risk it for the biscuit. Did you spec for this? No? Well screw it, do it anyway. I got my first game over because some youth irritated me to the point where I threw a punch at him, and missed, leading to my accidental death. Asking someone every question in the dialogue isn’t recommended, because soon they won’t answer any questions because you asked too many already.
It takes bold risks that few other games do, and in a way that makes failure feel like a natural part of your story, in a way that dissuades you from just reloading a save. For the first outing for a studio, it makes me really excited to see where they take it from here. Witty writing layered with great moments made even a few hours with this game incredibly memorable.
Daemon X Machina / Astral Chain
Man I wanted to love these games more than I did. Daemon X Machina is a special and great game with a lot going for it, but for all the wonderful gameplay and variety and depth, it lacks a soul that can sink its hooks in you. In a similar vein to Astral Chain earlier this year, despite the games being so far up my alley, I couldn’t find a place to sink my teeth into them. Maybe I will later this year.
10. Code Vein
Code Vein was a late addition to the last minute GOTY games that I wanted to wrap up. When Bandai Namco announced it a while back, I was pretty into the aesthetic of the ruins of Tokyo and the cyber gothic apocalypse that had left the only survivors hot vampire anime boys and ladies. It wasn’t very surprising that I would enjoy this game, but to enjoy it to the extent that I have and the kind of attention it drew from me was. The massive distinction that separates Code Vein from its Souls Genre counterparts truly lies in the Code mechanic.
By equipping different Codes, your character takes on another’s attributes and has access to their specialty moves and abilities. Different Code’s operate as the class system, but what is interesting about Codes is that they aren’t just a mechanic, they were originally part of a character. Codes belonging to characters that you meet, whether living or deceased is a unique twist. The game is fun, fast, and easy to consume, something that sometimes clashes with its convoluted story.
9. The Division 2
I loved The Division. From its early beta to launch, all the way up until it locked my saved data behind a bug that if I played it during a several month span that would erase it forever. The Division never met the promise it could have had, a poor fate for those early pioneers in the games as a service. The post-campaign content never really seemed to follow the threads they had left, and often felt misguided. Fortunately, The Division 2 kicks things off into high gear as your first mission has you storming the White House to save the last of the Washington D.C. Metro authorities. As with the gangs of Manhattan, the DC gangs are easy to comprehend with their individual motivations, how they arose, and what their objectives and obligations are.
The addition of the settlements, and working to improve and sustain them was perhaps one of my favorite parts of the game. Unlike the Base unlocking in The Division, the sequel’s embrace of diverse and unique settlements are wonderful to see grow and flourish with the help of your agent. While the story could be tighter and the world tiering much more simple and straightforward, the most important factor is that the gun play, movement, and abilities all feel as wonderful as they do. The Division 2 is a worthwhile sequel, even if the story of the game unravels the moment the campaign ends.
8. Sayonara Wild Hearts
I have always said I’ve never loved anything enough to get a tattoo of it on my body. That changed with Sayonara Wild Hearts. There’s a lot of what you can pull from the game, with its flashy effects and incredible pop soundtrack. It’s one of my favorite games in a long time and came at a wonderful time of my year. Despite the criticisms of the game and how it breaks its levels up rather than going full on-rail experience and locking that behind a new game plus type of mode, playing it on my Nintendo Switch was the ideal way to play it from what I now understand. Many people played it on mobile, but the tight response of the handheld unit really made the experience work so well with me.
Sayonara Wild Hearts tells the story of struggling to find closure and learning to love yourself again. I felt an intense emotional connection to the pop-filled tale of a magical girl traversing through space and time to fix the universe, all while finding the pieces to fix her own broken heart. I mentioned earlier about tattoos. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I’m still looking for an artist to take the rough sketch I have into what is likely to be the only ink on my body. After all, the narrator, played by THE Queen Latifah, says it best:
Wild hearts never die.
7. Death Stranding
It’s interesting to have this game so low on my list. It’s one of my favorite games this year, maybe in the last decade, even. I wrote the review for Death Stranding for That Nerdy Site. I gave it an 8/10. But that’s a breakdown and an analysis, and since I already wrote about that, I’ll talk about something else here.
Death Stranding might be so on the nose with its metaphors that it bothers some people, but I really do feel the earnest nature of Hideo Kojima in this game. His desire to tell a story about people who are being connected by a man who can’t actually touch people without it triggering his phobia of being touched. That while we are more than the bonds and relationships we forge with people, those are the things that make it worth being who we are.
6. Pokemon Sword & Shield
I love Pokemon. Pokemon Sword and Shield were my first forays back into the series after a prolonged absence with my last entry being Pokemon White. I’ve been absent from their sequels, X and Y, and even Sun and Moon. I didn’t have a 3DS, but more than that, I wasn’t seeing anything more from what I wanted from the franchise. None of the new Pokemon ever really made me feel like I needed to get back into it. That changed when I saw him. Doing his best “Warriors….come out and plaaayayaaaay” impression. So handsome. So talented. Just so strong, with a wild heart and musician’s soul.
I joined the GrookeyGang pretty much from the get-go. Everyone wanted the crying lizard or the rabbit with the cold dead unfeeling eyes of a serial killer. But as time wore on, people saw the benefits of electing Grookey as their starter. But in order to make the Grookey Gang a reality in my playthrough of Pokemon Sword, I needed to make sure EVERY Pokemon was Grookey-fied.
Snorlax? Snorkey. Ninetails? Ninekey. Grookey’s evolutions Thwakey and Rillaboom? No, it’s still Grookey. Like, I get it, it’s not supposed to be his name, but I have two major points. One, it’s his name if we say it’s his name. And secondly, you’re not my dad. You can’t tell me what to do. The first person in the game who tells me what to do? My best friend Hop, followed shortly by his brother, the Champion of the Galar region, Leon. How do I respond? By destroying Hop’s dreams of defeating his brother to become Champion, and then taking the only thing that has ever mattered to his brother, the only thing he’s ever had in his directionless life. His perfect win record. I don’t even care about the Championship. Well, I do, but still. The rule stands.
Nobody puts the Grookey Gang in a corner. Nobody.
5. Apex Legends
Apex Legends probably deserves to be Game of the Year on my list, and a lot of other lists at that. I don’t think there’s been a game that has entered a saturated market, filled with so many great ideas the number one game in its genre steals them like they do all their dances, but still can’t implement them as well as the original. Apex Legends has done an incredible job of keeping itself fresh throughout the year, being a talking point of every season. Every character they’ve introduced, from the incredible original cast to the new additions has been stellar. Each character approaching the game in a completely different way than the others.
Apex Legends took the risk nobody expected the team at Respawn to do, and it completely nailed it. It took the Titans out of Titanfall, and ran with it from there. It was interesting to find out later that EA wasn’t just trying to cash grab the Battle Royale genre, and in fact, didn’t want Respawn to even make it. But the team at Respawn were so sure of their game and so positive they knew what they were doing, that EA gave them the green light. And thank goodness they did.
While the game in its post launch has been incredible, the only glaring, unmissable flaw is in their battle pass and early special events. Still, there hasn’t been another game that had me, at 3AM only waking up to use the bathroom, to see a text from a friend with the message, “Apex. u up?” and deviated from four more hours of sleep before work to play a handful of rounds.
4. The Outer Worlds
I wrote about what makes The Outer Worlds special in a piece for Handsome Phantom, which you can find here. But the game is more than just what makes it special. There’s so much of this space adventure that makes it feel engaging, nuanced, and entertaining. It is rewarding, in just so many different ways there wasn’t a chance it would be missing from my list. As someone who has since come out publicly, it makes sense that a character like Parvati Holcomb would appeal to me, and I could connect with her and her internal struggles.
There’s so much about The Outer Worlds that hit me on just about every level, even if at the end I felt it was a tad underwhelming. For a game that started and just about finished as an independent title, I can hardly wait for what Obsidian Entertainment can do now that they have the tools and resources as a Microsoft partner studio. Also, in what other game can you go on a peyote spirit quest with a priest to slay his borderline-oedipal complex.
3. Fire Emblem Three Houses
The meme game of my meme dreams. A gift that keeps giving with all its new DLC, and multiple playthroughs, each staggeringly different from mid-game onward. Fire Emblem Three Houses has possibly one of the most vibrant casts I’ve seen from the franchise, with each character having not only their own unique stats, but with innate desires on how to proceed. The bookish Ignatz who has the heart of an artist and a painter’s eye is struggling to become a knight of martial prowess. You can choose to permit him to run this course of action, or redirect him into the spellcasting where his impeccable accuracy allows him to guarantee hits with otherwise unreliable spells like Blizzard.
Not only gameplay-wise do these students make an impact, they do the same with their own personal story and the challenges they face. A school made up of commoners and nobility alike, the interactions between characters who pride themselves in their noble heritage can often clash with those of common lineage, and in doing so set the stage for the struggles between factions, class structure, and the conspiracy hiding beneath the veneer of a monastery and the secrets its held for hundreds of years.
In order to reveal the full story, all five playthroughs are all but required to understand it all in the fullest scope, but each routes story and ending are satisfying enough for even a single playthrough to feel worth it. As your character’s heart awakens, so does the relationships you can build with each of the students and the other instructors and the key role you all will play in the future of the Fódlan.
2. Kingdom Hearts III
How does a game justify the wait and anticipation that Kingdom Hearts III has stoked over the years? Realistically, it can’t. Up front, I will say that the payoff of this game, and the reason it ranks so high up on my list, is the payoff for me personally was worth it. Before the game came out, I played my way through the entire series, side stories, and even watched the multiple-hour videos. But there really is something incredibly special for those of us whose hearts held the torch for so many years. The reality is this game is a modern excavation of a time capsule. Rather than abandon the PlayStation 2-era control structure and embrace the innovation in systems and mechanics that have come out since Birth By Sleep debuted on the PlayStation Portable, it double down on evolving its own systems and there are moments where it suffers for it.
But I can forgive ALL of that. Because the story has never been more Kingdom Hearts. It engorges itself on its melodramatic storytelling and characterization harder than ever before, going full tilt as the game utilizes the majority of its ensemble roster over the entire series. If that doesn’t entice you, what if I told you they full on cut in the entire sequence of “Let It Go” from Frozen?
Incredulous? Certainly. But man, does it put on a show. Can’t wait for the Re:Mind DLC later this January.
1. Devil May Cry 5
I love Devil May Cry, DMC, the Ballad of the Demon Hunting, pizza slice-slinging, strawberry sundae-slurping Dante. I continue to not be a fan of Ninja Theory’s remake, and DMC5 is a true return to form for the franchise in a way that feels like a wonderful breath of fresh air. Even if the story is the crazy, stylish, bonkers stories they’ve always been, the decision to fully embrace this universe’s dorky weirdness lends itself a wonderful sense of brevity to what is otherwise a horrible tragedy occurring in real time.
A new demon, Urizen, is trying to take the empty throne of the Demon World’s ruler by releasing the Qliphoth tree on Red Grave City. The story of the two demon hunters, Dante and Nero, and their mysterious client, V, as they try and foil the rise of a new king of the Demon World from rejoining the Human World with it. In doing so, the events of Dante’s past, the ambiguous connection between Nero and the demon knight Sparda’s bloodline, and V’s identity are revealed.
The game is audacious, ambitious, and jam packed with brilliant gameplay mechanics, letting the true star of any real Devil May Cry game, the combat, really take its starring role. All three playable characters are designed around different gameplay styles, meaning they don’t play like one another outside of the basic systems of the game. How to approach different fights, the strategies needed to continue on victorious, and traversing the levels themselves change for each character.
Even if you’ve never played a Devil May Cry game, you were a fan of DmC, or have a long history with the series like I do, Devil May Cry 5 is the best the franchise has ever been. For all of these reasons and more, Devil May Cry 5 is my Game of the Year for 2019.
And there you have it, my 2019 Games of the Year. Please look forward to more awesome content celebrating the best of 2019, and the best of the decade right here on That Nerdy Site.